At this moment the happiest people in the world are in Cleveland, Ohio. Their hometown basketball hero has returned!
LeBron James is coming home!
By marked contrast, on July 8, 2010, when unemployment was at 12.2% and neither the NFL Cleveland Browns nor the MLB Cleveland Indians had produced anything of significance, the city felt betrayed, abandoned, treated like General George Washington had been treated by Benedict Arnold in America’s war for independence when James announced on nationwide television that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat. Being a product of Miami, I was elated.
The Cleveland Cavalier fans reacted with a personal hostility unlike anything we have seen in recent sport history. He was excoriated by the Cavaliers’ managing partner in ownership, Dan Gilbert, whose invective letter stayed on the Cavaliers’ website from 2010 until just last week. James’ jersey was burned. His character was attacked. Some of the most vile and vitriolic utterances one can imagine were hurled at this hometown product who had developed into the greatest basketball player on the planet.
And, although James knew he had made a business decision, he and his family were deeply hurt by Cleveland’s reaction.
Today all is forgiven – on both sides, and the “prodigal son” will return with all the pomp and ceremony Cleveland can muster when James actually steps off the plane and officially makes his presence in the city on Lake Erie a reality.
In a stirring letter, or “essay” as James calls it, which was released through Sports Illustrated, he announced his decision to return to his “home” in Northeast Ohio. The poet, Robert Frost in The Death of the Hired Man, observed, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.” But for Cleveland there was no imperative “have to take you in”; it was, rather, a plaintive and constant supplication for his return during the four-year hiatus. A hiatus which, by the way, turned out to be like a wandering in the desert for Cleveland’s Cavaliers in NBA play.
He is going back “home” now, with an accomplished and polished, mature presence boasting of four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and two NBA Championships, along with the various MVP honors he accrued while with the Miami Heat. And all is well.
For me, however, it is all “well” because of James’ character – and only because of his character. When I read through his “essay”, as I encourage anyone who seeks any insights into the mettle of this young man, I was moved by his candor, his sincerity, his loyalty, and his class. What is more, for me, though, this mini-treatise on his departure from Miami and return to Cleveland revealed his heart and his spirit.
From my perspective, Cleveland did nothing to deserve this! Their attacks on him in 2010 were unjustified in any terms – immature, vitriolic, bitter, cruel, vicious, caustic, malicious, rancorous, and every other spiteful epithets which could be hurled at a young man who had given every ounce of effort and dedication to his city.
What I observed, and have observed from James for the past four years, is a fully developed soul whose priorities are clear and well-defined. In his announcement he pointed out that his “relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” as is his honor. He has set up foundations which serve the inner city children in the Cleveland area. He has worked with the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs in that area, and has contributed in countless, less visible ways to better his beloved Northeast Ohio.
Jesus tells St. Peter in his parable in Luke 12:48, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” There is no doubt that the talents James has received are true gifts which have been entrusted to him – and he has done more to return those gifts than any prominent athlete in modern times. It is my belief that those gifts we are given by the Almighty are to be returned by what we do with them to improve the conditions of His people. James has fulfilled that charge a thousand-fold.
He was gracious in thanking the Miami front office – owner Mick Arison and President Pat Riley – for all they had done to give him “an amazing four years”. And as for Gilbert, a narcissistic egomaniac who castigated James so mercilessly in 2010, he simply said, “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
LeBron James has a higher calling in his own eyes. “I feel my calling here [Cleveland] goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead. In more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” And he does not see it as a burden. He sees it as an opportunity.
I am blessed with five sons and six grandsons and as each of them continues on his individual path to manhood I
pray that they have the courage, the grace, the dignity, the humility and the heart that LeBron James has.
Those of us who appreciate the opportunity sport gives its participants to exhibit the character they develop understand that James is not only exceptional by his physical talent – he is gifted in the fashion he has chosen to give back to his “home” through his extraordinary moral fiber.
Miami is my hometown – but from now on, some of my heart will be in Cleveland.
Dr. Arthur Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He has worked in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director. He is a published author and poet and writes a weekly column on issues facing America. He has also served on NCAA committees and on the All-American Football Selection Committee.